Horses are part of an ever growing industry, with over 600,000 horses in the UK, 1.4 million riders and 5 million people with an active interest in the equine industry*. Most people acquire a horse out of choice, so if you make this decision you should think carefully before going ahead. A horse needs lots of love and care, including regular worming, vaccinations and dental care. Owning a horse is time consuming and can be costly; not only will you will need to consider where you will keep your horse, you must also consider the ongoing costs of owning a horse which include accommodation, bedding, feed and healthcare.

In the unlikely event that your horse goes missing it is going to be very difficult for anyone to know who it belongs to, unless your horse carries some form of permanent identification. It is wise to get your horse microchipped or freezemarked, this will avoid heartache in the long run, should your horse go missing or is stolen.

Horses are herd animals, and thrive on being together with other horses. Don’t forget that your horse will need somewhere to graze, a stable for warmth in the winter time, a constant supply of water, feeding daily and regular exercise. It can cost hundreds of pounds a month to care for a horse, including accommodation, food, veterinary care and insurance; there will be other costs, including buying tack and rugs and extra livery charges when you go on holiday.

Horses can live into their thirties, over this time your horse will need lots of care and attention. Being able to provide all of this will ensure you and your horse make the most of your time together.

* Research conducted in 2004 by the Henley Centre for DEFRA and the British Horse Industry Confederation.

Equine gastric ulcer syndrome

Equine gastric ulceration syndrome (EGUS) is a common condition seen in many types of horses, but is often missed as the cause of a variety problems, including reduced body condition, changes in appetite, and behavioural and exercise-related issues. EGUS has many causes and can be complicated in nature, so if you think you horse may be suffering from gastric ulcers, call your vet immediately.

What is EGUS?

EGUS describes the development of ulcers on the inner wall of the stomach caused by exposure to excessive amounts of acids produced by the stomach. As a general rule the horses stomach acids are neutralised by a constant supply of saliva while the horse eats/grazes, preventing the development of ulcers, however under certain conditions, the horse may not produce enough saliva to neutralise these stomach acids which can lead to EGUS.

The severity of gastric ulceration ranges from minimal inflammation of the stomach lining to severe ulceration and bleeding of the stomach lining. In extreme cases the stomach can perforate which can lead to sudden death.

A grading system has been implemented to help classify the severity of EGUS:

  • Grade 0 = intact stomach lining; no appearance of reddening.
  • Grade 1 = intact stomach lining; areas of reddening.
  • Grade 2 = small single or multiple ulcers on stomach lining.
  • Grade 3 = large single or multiple ulcers on stomach lining.
  • Grade 4 = extensive/deep ulcers on stomach lining.

There are two types of gastric ulcer:

  • Squamous ulceration ulcers occur in the upper section (often near the junction between the squamous and glandular tissues) of the stomach as a result of overexposure to acid secretions.
  • Glandular ulceration ulcers occur in the lower section of the stomach where the protective mucus layer overlying the tissue is undermined, eg due to side-effects of certain medications, chronic stress and potentially bacterial infections.

What causes EGUS?

EGUS can affect any type of horse, from pony to performance horse. There are a number of risk factors which can lead to the formation of gastric ulcers including, diet, intensive exercise, physical stress/illness, psychological stress and medication, although EGUS can affect horses even in the absence of these factors. Foals are particularly at risk due to the delicacy of the stomach lining at this young age; they also produce high amounts of gastric acid from the first few days of life making them at higher risk of developing EGUS.

Diet - the stomach continually produces acids to cope with the continuous trickle of feed horses consume, in turn these acids are neutralised by the saliva produced while eating and trapped within food. Feed in the horse's stomach forms distinct layers - very acidic fluid and small food particles sit at the bottom in the glandular layer, higher up in the squamous layer the fluid is almost neutral with large food particles, particularly roughage. When a horse experiences prolonged periods of fasting/starvation, excessive amounts of acids build up causing ulceration. High grain/low roughage diets are also thought to contribute to EGUS as grain requires less chewing which in turn stimulates less saliva. A predominantly grain diet also upsets the normal layering within the stomach. Ulcers can develop within a 24-48 hour period if a horse is unable to eat.

Intense exercise - during exercise blood flow to the stomach is reduced and the pressure in the abdomen is increased which in turn pushes the accumulated acids up into the sensitive portion of the stomach which can cause squamous ulceration.

Physical stress/illness - eg shock, infection, parasites, traumatic injury, transportation, stable confinement these may cause ulcers due to restricted blood flow to the stomach and increased acid production.

Psychological stress - stressful situations may affect a horse's feed intake which leads to reduced saliva production and consequently excess amounts of acids in the stomach; increased acid production also occurs during stress.

Medication - some long-term medications or drug overdosage, particularly of anti-inflammatory drugs, eg phenylbutazone/equipalazone (bute), can cause restricted blood supply to the stomach which can lead to glandular ulceration.

How will I know if my horse has EGUS?

Many horses will show no signs of suffering from EGUS, however they may show non-specific signs, including poor appetite, slowed eating activity, rough hair coat, weight loss, poor performance, poor condition, colic, changes in behaviour, pain on girth tightening, teeth grinding, difficulty swallowing and excessive salivation. Foals on the other hand will show more obvious signs, most commonly diarrhoea, but also excess salivation, teeth grinding, colic and excessive periods of recumbency.

If you think your horse might be suffering from EGUS, call your vet immediately. Your vet will be able to investigate further with the use of an endoscope to look inside your horse's stomach. The procedure is relatively simple and painless, and your vet will be able to give you an accurate diagnosis.

Can my horse be treated for EGUS?

Yes, EGUS can be treated simply and effectively.

Initially your vet will ensure your horse's diet is suitable and discuss any improvements necessary. Other factors to consider are to avoid stress, such as prolonged stabling or long journeys. Your vet may also prescribe some acid inhibitor drugs to help your horse's recovery. This usually comes in an oral paste that is given over a 28-day period.

Ulcers can take between 2-4 weeks to heal completely, although severe cases can take longer.

How can I prevent my horse from developing EGUS?

As with most equine conditions, prevention is the name of the game. Feed your horse as naturally as possible allowing daily turnout, ad lib hay and hard feed fed little and often - avoid high grain/low roughage diets.

Avoid stressful situations and regulate your horses exercise - do not over-exercise an unfit horse. Other strategies to reduce stress, such as the use of stable and box mirrors can be useful. If your horse is on long-term medication that could be the cause, you will need to review this treatment with your vet.